Thomas Merton, the example

At the UN Pope Francis held up Thomas Merton as an example.

Here is a bit of Thomas Merton, the example:

Pope Francis quoted Thomas Merton. Here is Merton on chant:

This is what I think about the Latin and the chant: They are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. They have a force, an energy, a depth without equal. All the proposed English offices are very much impoverished in comparison — besides, it is not at all impossible to make such things understood and appreciated. Generally I succeed quite well in this, in the novitiate, with some exceptions, naturally, who did not understand well. But I must add something more serious. As you know, I have many friends in the world who are artists, poets, authors, editors, etc. Now they are well able to appreciate our chant and even our Latin. But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. And that is the worst. The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.&

— Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (1964)

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Cosmos says:

    Merton said in one of his books (and I paraphrase): “If you want to see a ‘modern’ man, look in the mirror.” Merton needs to take his own advice.

    You can’t sign-up for the wrecking crew, invite them inside to start swinging away, and then act surprised when someone smashes that nice decorative window you thought we were going to keep.

  2. juergensen says:

    Did he say if Argentina is accepting Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants?

  3. I don’t think this whole trip could have gone worse if one of The Wun’s political henchmen had arranged the entire schedule of events.

    I’ve heard or read nothing that does not scream “South American Liberation Theologian” and thinly disguised anti-US polemics.

    Christians are being driven out of their homes and literally crucified and beheaded and we’re supposed to worry about taking in the riff-raff co-religionists of those perpetrating the monstrosities? Soothing platitudes…shiny baubles (how many kids did His Holiness stop and kiss…????) and nothing of real substance except out of the leftist playbook.

    This is only the first shoe, I fear. The next one will drop after the Synod. There will be no place to hide, nor sanctuary.

  4. acardnal says:

    I read that quote at Chant Cafe’s website on Thursday, Sept. 24. I have been Tweeting it out ever since! I like how Merton also mentions the coming changes to the Traditional Latin Mass: ” But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. ”

    I note that both Merton and Dorothy Day, whom the Pope mentioned in his speech to Congress, attended and were converted by the TLM/EF.

    This is another quotation of Merton’s about Gregorian chant which Chant Cafe cites:

    “But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.”
    Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Part 3, ch. 4, page 379

    Last I checked, Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” (his autobiography) was the number 21 bestseller in books at Amazon. Sales apparently increasing ever since Pope Francis mentioned his name.

  5. robtbrown says:


    The point is that Merton didn’t sign up for the wrecking crew.

    I do think, however, that there were people who took too much for granted and didn’t realize there were forces in the Church who were determined to destroy Catholic life. They looked up one day and saw that it was all gone.

  6. gatormom says:

    Oh my goodness, big sigh of relief! And here I thought His Holiness chose him because he loved Bhudism and was a COMMUNIST. Ha ha ha, I am so silly. So so relieved to see this though! PHEW!!!

  7. pelerin says:

    One of my friends admits that she still loves to listen to Gregorian Chant in spite of having left the Church some years ago and joined a Protestant one where she tells me she feels more at home.

    I remember reading somewhere that listening to Gregorian Chant can actually bring down ones blood pressure too. Coupled with the ‘feel good’ (or should that be smell good?) factor of incense Gregorian Chant is obviously good for ones health and can in no way be compared to ‘Lord of the Dance’, ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ or the ‘Clapping Gloria with which we were inflicted for so many years.

  8. robtbrown says:

    Bryan D. Boyle says:

    I’ve heard or read nothing that does not scream “South American Liberation Theologian” and thinly disguised anti-US polemics.

    What has he said that screamed SA Liberation Theologian?

  9. cbmiamiensis says:

    Since I’ve been re-reading Seven Story for my spiritual reading this month, I was pleased with the Papal mention.
    As for the South America liberation theology commentor , it seems that the modern secular media is (are) the on,y ones who hear and see only what they hear and see.

  10. cbmiamiensis says:

    Modern secular media is not the only one (ones) who hear and see only what they want to hear and see.
    I’m solid B16 guy but nothing that this Pope has SAID contradicts what B16 has said. Yes, different style and points of emphasis but in union with his predecessors.

  11. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    We should pay attention not only to what the Pope says but also to what he does not say. That is what is bothering me. There was very little in his speech to Congress that could not have been said by President Obama.

    One of the most successful tactics in destroying our Catholic faith and identity has not been what was said and done, although that was bad enough, but what was not said and done, the utter failure of catechesis and praxis. Just stop teaching and preaching, stop devotions, stop chant, stop great old hymns that actually had theological content, stop Friday abstinence, stop confession, nearly obliterate the Communion fast, stop reception of Communion kneeling and on the tongue, stop saying Catholicism is different and why. Now we are not different and most people in the pews are apparently perfectly satisfied, while prominent clergy and activists think we haven’t gone far enough.

  12. gretta says:

    What I have found so amazing is that we have CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, and other secular networks that are broadcasting all day and in prime time about the Pope. Papal masses have been broadcast without interruption, and we’ve had Catholic commentators basically proselytizing their entire viewing audience since the Pope arrived with nary a peep about it from the MSM – in fact, their reporters seem to be as enthralled with this Pope as everyone else. What a great opportunity for evangelization and bringing people back to the Church!

  13. kat says:

    I think the Holy Father’s silence on important topics is deafening. We are judged on what we do and say…and also on what we do NOT do or say.

    I need to pray harder for him. It is a very difficult week. Then of course there is the added difficulty that wherever the Pope is mentioned, the comments of the anti-Catholics tearing into the pope and the papacy is very painful.

  14. benedetta says:

    After growing up in and attending banal vernacular NO Masses for so many years, a great many of us are discovering how very insightful and accurate were Merton’s observations about the beauty of the Latin chants and our need for it, not only us in the Church but for the beauty of life amidst secular society. Secular society needs it as well as we in the Church.

    And there is another thing that Merton got right early on and at the moment of his conversion — and anyone who knows Dorothy Day’s writings will concur that she saw things exactly this way also — Merton recognized that a believer rightly aspires to nothing less than sainthood (cf. conversation between Merton and Lax, Seven Storey). That the goal of our lives is heaven, and if it is not then we are wasting our time, as one contemporary son of the Church and lay apostle has pointed out and encouraged a great many young people in our time, right now, tirelessly, in the Archdiocese of New York. While so many of the beauty and life of the Church has been hidden from us and rendered unavailable to us in our time, from Merton and Day and continuing forward, nonetheless, the aspiration of our prayer is in continuity with the great diversity within the communion of orthodoxy in the Church.

  15. MWindsor says:

    And no one will remember anything of this trip next month when the Synod begins.

  16. Traductora says:

    Some people didn’t read the quote, I suspect, and just reacted to their idea of Merton – who was in reality a tragic figure. He died under rather ambiguous circumstances after having “gone East,” probably to escape from having become a celebrity Trappist guru with his own pad where he hung out and gave interviews and posed for the press. He was, in the old sense of the word, scandalized, and did not know what to do.

    Vatican II and the loss of the Old Mass (and my apologies to the more correct people here, but to me that is the best term) scandalized many people and sent them into darkness. Graham Greene left the Church, along with other intellectual converts such as Robert Lowell. The mass was vitally important to them and so was doctrine….but most important of all was tradition, and Vatican II tore it apart. Even many humble people I knew lost faith and found their lives launched into a downward spiral. That was what happened to Merton as well, as you can see from this citation. All we can do is pray for him.

    And as for Dorothy Day, I was at the Worker for years – and if Pope Francis thinks she was a statist who would support him, believe me, she was not. She hated the government, would not accept a dime frm any governmental agency, and only paid local taxes. And she was very orthodox. When Daniel Berrigan celebrated Mass at the Worker and poured the consecrated wine down the kitchen drain, she burst into tears and never let him celebrate mass there again.

  17. Supertradmum says:

    Many years ago, Thomas Merton gave us all the best commentary on the evil of television ever.
    Here is the selection from an old blog post of mine:

    I have shared on this blog the great insight of Thomas Merton on the biggest danger of television-that the passivity which one approaches tv is the aspect, the gift of the mind and soul for passive prayer. The television takes over this part of the human soul and mind and perverts the natural course of learning to be passive in the Presence of God. Here is Merton’s comment:
    “I am certainly no judge of television, since I have never watched it. All I know is that there is a sufficiently general agreement, among men whose judgment I respect, that commercial television is degraded, meretricious and absurd. Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love. It would seem that television should be used with extreme care and discrimination by anyone who might hope to take interior life seriously.” (86) Seeds of Contemplation
    Think of this–that the capacity for contemplation, the capacity which God created in each person for an intimate relationship with Him, has been perverted by television and other passive forms of entertainment.
    God created us for Himself, and we must protect our imaginations, minds, souls, bodies from the pollution of false ideals which flood into us through all types of entertainment.

    May I add today, that in another article, he wrote that God had given us all the gift to be contemplatives, but that we had given over this passive part of our soul to mindlessness on television. We were all created to contemplate God and His Attributes daily, but, instead, give over that sacred longing for quiet and passivity to television.

    This advice is still pertinent, and even more so, today.

    As to the Pope’s visit, I hold with the famous Marxist saying, any news, either good or bad, produces interest. I know for a fact that some people who would have never noticed the Catholic Church are doing so for some rather simple reasons- such as, the Pope re-stating traditional Catholic teaching regarding unbridled capitalism as being greed, and a Pope being seen in a Fiat.

    I actually like him much better after this visit. And, his attitude at Mass has been one of an extremely prayerful man. I hope other priests take his huge hint and say the Eucharistic Prayer totally in Latin, even in the English NO. Loved the chant in yesterday’s Mass…..

  18. Supertradmum says:

    And, Father Z, I think you have has this famous Merton poem on your blog before, on, perhaps, a vision of 9/11″

    Figures for an Apocalypse
    Thomas Merton

    VI: In the Ruins of New York

    The moon is paler than an actress
    We have beheld her mourning in the brown ivy
    Of the dendric bridges,
    In the brown, broken ivy
    That loves but a span of air.

    The moon is paler than an actress, and weeps for you, New York,
    Seeking to see you through the tattered bridges,
    Leaning down to catch the sham brass
    Of your sophisticated voice,
    Whose songs are heard no more!

    Oh how quiet it is after the black night
    When flames out of the clouds burned down your cariated teeth,
    And when those lightnings,
    Lancing the black boils of Harlem and the Bronx,
    Spilled the remaining prisoners,
    (The ten and twenties of the living)
    Into the trees of Jersey,
    To the green farms, to find their liberty.

    How are they down, how have they fallen down
    Those great strong towers of ice and steel.
    And melted by what terror and what miracle?
    What fires and lights tore down,
    With the white anger of their sudden accusation,
    Those towers of silver and of steel?

    You whose streets grew up on trellises
    With roots in Bowling Green and tap-roots in the Upper Bay:
    How are you stripped, now to your skeleton:
    What has become of your lie and dead flesh:
    Where is the shimmer of your bawdy leaves?
    Oh, where your children in the evening of your final Sunday
    Gunned after one another in the shadows of the Paramount,
    The ashes of the leveled towers still curl with tufts of smoke
    Veiling your obsequies in their incinerating haze
    They write, in embers, this your epitaph:

    ”This was a city
    That dressed herself in paper money.
    She lived four hundred years
    With nickels running in her veins.
    She loved the waters of the seven purple seas,
    And burned on her own green harbor
    Higher and whiter than ever any Tyre.
    She was as callous as a taxi;
    Her high-heeled eyes were sometimes blue as gin,
    And she nailed them, all the days of her life,
    Through the hearts of her six million poor.
    Now she has died in the terrors of a sudden contemplation
    Drowned in the waters of her own, her poisoned well.”

    Can we console you, stars,
    For the so long survival of such wickedness?
    Tomorrow and the day after
    Grasses and flowers will grow
    Upon the bosom of Manhattan.
    And soon the branches of the hickory and sycamore
    Will wave where all those dirty windows were–
    Ivy and the wild-grape vine
    Will tear those weak walls down,
    Burying the brownstone fronts in freshness and fragrant flowers;
    And the wild-rose and the crab-apple tree
    Will bloom in all those silent mid-town dells.
    There shall be doves’ nests, and hives of bees
    In the cliffs of the ancient apartments,
    And birds shall sing in the sunny hawthorns
    Where was once Park Avenue.
    And where Grand Central was, shall be a little hill
    Clustered with sweet, dark pine.

    Will there be some farmer, think you,
    Clearing a place in the woods,
    Planting an acre of bannering corn
    On the heights above Harlem forest?
    Will hunters come explore
    The virgin glades of Broadway for the lynx and deer?
    Or will some hermit, hiding in the birches, build himself a cell
    With ths stones of the city hall,
    When all the caved-in subways turn to streams
    And creeks of fish,
    Flowing in sun and silence to the reedy Battery?

    But now the moon is paler than a statue.
    She reaches out and hangs her lamp
    In the iron trees of this destroyed Hesperides.
    And by that light, under the caves that once were banks and theaters,
    The hairy ones come out to play–
    And we believe we hear the singing of the manticores
    Echo along the rocks of Wall and Pine.
    And we are full of fear, and muter than the upside-down stars
    That limp in the lame waters,
    Muter than the mother moon who, white as death,
    Flies and escapes across the wastes of Jersey.

    Excerpt taken with permission pending from:

    Figures of New York
    By Thomas Merton
    New Directions: Norfolk, Connecticut, 1947

  19. Supertradmum says:

    I found the other reference:

    I have read all of Thomas Merton’s books many, many years ago but I have missed some of his articles. Now, I have come across a startling one which I missed so long ago and I hope this helps.

    If you can find Cistercian Studies Quarterly, “Inner Experience: Problems of the Contemplative Life (VII)”, Vol 19, 1984, notes on pp. 269-270,

    You will read that the monk compared television watching as a caricature of contemplation.

    This is earth-shaking. I knew that television interfered with silence and solitude, and that it is a brain-washing technique, but to read that it creates the same dynamic as contemplative prayer reveals the real evil.

    Merton’s points are these: one is passive and takes in uncritically what is given on the television; one is receptive to all that is there before one; one become inert and “yields” to the “mystic attraction until one is spellbound in a state of complete union.”

    This is terrifying. And, I know this to be true. In families where there is tv, there is no peace or reflection. In families where there is no TV, there is quiet.

  20. Dutchman says:

    Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the Pope’s entire U.S./Cuba trip for me has been a greater insight into the man IN ACTION and the depths of the anger people harbor for him both in secular society and within the Church. “let he who has ears, hear.” But even in hearing, people come away with only what they seem to be predisposed to hear.

  21. acardnal says:

    Regarding Dorothy Day, I think she is misunderstood by some. She wasn’t a Socialist. She opposed Social Security, arguing in 1945 that state intervention served only to limit personal responsibility and freedom.

    Informative article by Mike Aquilina HERE

  22. acardnal says:

    Dutchman wrote, “But even in hearing, people come away with only what they seem to be predisposed to hear.”

    That is often the case. But this can be corrected by clear, definitive statements that are not ambiguous.

  23. lmgilbert says:

    Father Z, Could you source that quote from Merton? I’d love to read more of his correspondence if it has been published. I was a candidate at a Cisterican abbey (Holy Cross in Berryville, VA)in 1974 and they had a lot of unpublished his writings on the Viet Nam War in binders in the library, passages that should have been written on asbestos, and which would have energized the entire Church in the States against the war very early on had they been published. It was obvious that the order was not permitting them to be published so that we could continue to fit in as Catholics, not have our patriotism called into question and so forth. The same sort of thing would apply to his letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 1964 in that the order did not want to get involved in liturgical controversies.

    Well, it’s understandable enough, I suppose, given that it is a contemplative order. Contemplation and controversy do not go well together and Dom Gillet probably was trying to keep the order from dissolving in internecine strife. Still they had a prophet on their hands for about 25 yrs and it is a shame that we were deprived of his voice on some of these issues. By the way, on a walk one day Abbot McCorkle ( of Holy Cross) expressed the same thought to me, that we were throwing away our heritage.

  24. robtbrown says:


    The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction, edited by Brother Patrick Hart, p. 236.

  25. acardnal says:

    You should be able to find the quote in a book entitled “The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction”, edited by Brother Patrick Hart, p. 236.

  26. acardnal says:

    I think one can say from documented evidence that Merton was not pleased with the changes occurring in the Mass and the Office after the Second Vatican Council – and already in the early to mid-1960s. He loved Latin and chant and was not pleased with their loss and the use of the vernacular!

    In the book “The Wounded Heart of Thomas Merton” by Robert G. Waldron, this issue is addressed. In the quote of Merton’s mentioned above by Fr. Z, there are some informative sentences that precede the quote, “People are pushed into thinking that they are dissatisfied with the Latin, the Gregorian chant, the status of the lay brother, the liturgy as we have it, when in reality that is not the case at all. . . .But it is only a few brothers who, moreover, were not always the best ones but who got more agitated and had more to say, and who tried to persuade the others to go with them, etc. But this is what I think about the Latin chant: They are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. ”
    -Letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General OCSO, 1964

  27. acardnal says:

    I have visited the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA many times. I used to live and work in northern Virginia and the Abbey was a nice respite from the rat race.

  28. lmgilbert says:

    acardnal and robtbrown, Thanks very much for the information.

Comments are closed.